Welding is a fabrication or sculptural process that joins materials, usually metals or thermoplastics, by causing coalescence. This is often done by melting the workpieces and adding a filler material to form a pool of molten material (the weld pool) that cools to become a strong joint, with pressure sometimes used in conjunction with heat, or by itself, to produce the weld. This is in contrast with soldering and brazing, which involve melting a lower-melting-point material between the workpieces to form a bond between them, without melting the workpieces.
Many different energy sources can be used for welding, including a gas flame, an electric arc, a laser, an electron beam, friction, and ultrasound. While often an industrial process, welding can be done in many different environments, including open air, under water and in outer space. Regardless of location, however, welding remains dangerous, and precautions must be taken to avoid burns, electric shock, eye damage, poisonous fumes, and overexposure to ultraviolet light.
Until the end of the 19th century, the only welding process was forge welding, which blacksmiths had used for centuries to join metals by heating and pounding them. Arc welding and oxyfuel welding were among the first processes to develop late in the century, and resistance welding followed soon after. Welding technology advanced quickly during the early 20th century as World War I and World War II drove the demand for reliable and inexpensive joining methods. Following the wars, several modern welding techniques were developed, including manual methods like shielded metal arc welding, now one of the most popular welding methods, as well as semi-automatic and automatic processes such as gas metal arc welding, submerged arc welding, flux-cored arc welding and electroslag welding. Developments continued with the invention of laser beam welding and electron beam welding in the latter half of the century. Today, the science continues to advance. Robot welding is becoming more commonplace in industrial settings, and researchers continue to develop new welding methods and gain greater understanding of weld quality and properties.
These processes use a welding power supply to create and maintain an electric arc between an electrode and the base material to melt metals at the welding point. They can use either direct (DC) or alternating (AC) current, and consumable or non-consumable electrodes. The welding region is sometimes protected by some type of inert or semi-inert gas, known as a shielding gas, and filler material is sometimes used as well.
To supply the electrical energy necessary for arc welding processes, a number of different power supplies can be used. The most common welding power supplies are constant current power supplies and constant voltage power supplies. In arc welding, the length of the arc is directly related to the voltage, and the amount of heat input is related to the current. Constant current power supplies are most often used for manual welding processes such as gas tungsten arc welding and shielded metal arc welding, because they maintain a relatively constant current even as the voltage varies. This is important because in manual welding, it can be difficult to hold the electrode perfectly steady, and as a result, the arc length and thus voltage tend to fluctuate. Constant voltage power supplies hold the voltage constant and vary the current, and as a result, are most often used for automated welding processes such as gas metal arc welding, flux cored arc welding, and submerged arc welding. In these processes, arc length is kept constant, since any fluctuation in the distance between the wire and the base material is quickly rectified by a large change in current. For example, if the wire and the base material get too close, the current will rapidly increase, which in turn causes the heat to increase and the tip of the wire to melt, returning it to its original separation distance.
The type of current used in arc welding also plays an important role in welding. Consumable electrode processes such as shielded metal arc welding and gas metal arc welding generally use direct current, but the electrode can be charged either positively or negatively. In welding, the positively charged anode will have a greater heat concentration, and as a result, changing the polarity of the electrode has an impact on weld properties. If the electrode is positively charged, the base metal will be hotter, increasing weld penetration and welding speed. Alternatively, a negatively charged electrode results in more shallow welds. Nonconsumable electrode processes, such as gas tungsten arc welding, can use either type of direct current, as well as alternating current. However, with direct current, because the electrode only creates the arc and does not provide filler material, a positively charged electrode causes shallow welds, while a negatively charged electrode makes deeper welds. Alternating current rapidly moves between these two, resulting in medium-penetration welds. One disadvantage of AC, the fact that the arc must be re-ignited after every zero crossing, has been addressed with the invention of special power units that produce a square wave pattern instead of the normal sine wave, making rapid zero crossings possible and minimizing the effects of the problem.
One of the most common types of arc welding is shielded metal arc welding (SMAW), which is also known as manual metal arc welding (MMA) or stick welding. Electric current is used to strike an arc between the base material and consumable electrode rod, which is made of steel and is covered with a flux that protects the weld area from oxidation and contamination by producing CO2 gas during the welding process. The electrode core itself acts as filler material, making a separate filler unnecessary.
The process is versatile and can be performed with relatively inexpensive equipment, making it well suited to shop jobs and field work. An operator can become reasonably proficient with a modest amount of training and can achieve mastery with experience. Weld times are rather slow, since the consumable electrodes must be frequently replaced and because slag, the residue from the flux, must be chipped away after welding. Furthermore, the process is generally limited to welding ferrous materials, though special electrodes have made possible the welding of cast iron, nickel, aluminium, copper, and other metals. Inexperienced operators may find it difficult to make good out-of-position welds with this process.
Gas metal arc welding (GMAW), also known as metal inert gas or MIG welding, is a semi-automatic or automatic process that uses a continuous wire feed as an electrode and an inert or semi-inert gas mixture to protect the weld from contamination. As with SMAW, reasonable operator proficiency can be achieved with modest training. Since the electrode is continuous, welding speeds are greater for GMAW than for SMAW. Also, the smaller arc size compared to the shielded metal arc welding process makes it easier to make out-of-position welds (e.g., overhead joints, as would be welded underneath a structure).
The equipment required to perform the GMAW process is more complex and expensive than that required for SMAW, and requires a more complex setup procedure. Therefore, GMAW is less portable and versatile, and due to the use of a separate shielding gas, is not particularly suitable for outdoor work. However, owing to the higher average rate at which welds can be completed, GMAW is well suited to production welding. The process can be applied to a wide variety of metals, both ferrous and non-ferrous.
A related process, flux-cored arc welding (FCAW), uses similar equipment but uses wire consisting of a steel electrode surrounding a powder fill material. This cored wire is more expensive than the standard solid wire and can generate fumes and/or slag, but it permits even higher welding speed and greater metal penetration.
Gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW), or tungsten inert gas (TIG) welding (also sometimes erroneously referred to as heliarc welding), is a manual welding process that uses a nonconsumable tungsten electrode, an inert or semi-inert gas mixture, and a separate filler material. Especially useful for welding thin materials, this method is characterized by a stable arc and high quality welds, but it requires significant operator skill and can only be accomplished at relatively low speeds.
GTAW can be used on nearly all weldable metals, though it is most often applied to stainless steel and light metals. It is often used when quality welds are extremely important, such as in bicycle, aircraft and naval applications. A related process, plasma arc welding, also uses a tungsten electrode but uses plasma gas to make the arc. The arc is more concentrated than the GTAW arc, making transverse control more critical and thus generally restricting the technique to a mechanized process. Because of its stable current, the method can be used on a wider range of material thicknesses than can the GTAW process, and furthermore, it is much faster. It can be applied to all of the same materials as GTAW except magnesium, and automated welding of stainless steel is one important application of the process. A variation of the process is plasma cutting, an efficient steel cutting process.
Submerged arc welding (SAW) is a high-productivity welding method in which the arc is struck beneath a covering layer of flux. This increases arc quality, since contaminants in the atmosphere are blocked by the flux. The slag that forms on the weld generally comes off by itself, and combined with the use of a continuous wire feed, the weld deposition rate is high. Working conditions are much improved over other arc welding processes, since the flux hides the arc and almost no smoke is produced. The process is commonly used in industry, especially for large products and in the manufacture of welded pressure vessels. Other arc welding processes include atomic hydrogen welding, carbon arc welding, electroslag welding, electrogas welding, and stud arc welding.
The most common gas welding process is oxyfuel welding, also known as oxyacetylene welding. It is one of the oldest and most versatile welding processes, but in recent years it has become less popular in industrial applications. It is still widely used for welding pipes and tubes, as well as repair work. It is also frequently well-suited, and favored, for fabricating some types of metal-based artwork. Oxyfuel equipment is versatile, lending itself not only to some sorts of iron or steel welding but also to brazing, braze-welding, metal heating (for bending and forming), and also oxyfuel cutting.
The equipment is relatively inexpensive and simple, generally employing the combustion of acetylene in oxygen to produce a welding flame temperature of about 3100 °C. The flame, since it is less concentrated than an electric arc, causes slower weld cooling, which can lead to greater residual stresses and weld distortion, though it eases the welding of high alloy steels. A similar process, generally called oxyfuel cutting, is used to cut metals. Other gas welding methods, such as air acetylene welding, oxygen hydrogen welding, and pressure gas welding are quite similar, generally differing only in the type of gases used. A water torch is sometimes used for precision welding of small items such as jewelry. Gas welding is also used in plastic welding, though the heated substance is air, and the temperatures are much lower.
Resistance welding involves the generation of heat by passing current through the resistance caused by the contact between two or more metal surfaces. Small pools of molten metal are formed at the weld area as high current (1000–100,000 A) is passed through the metal. In general, resistance welding methods are efficient and cause little pollution, but their applications are somewhat limited and the equipment cost can be high.
Spot welding is a popular resistance welding method used to join overlapping metal sheets of up to 3 mm thick. Two electrodes are simultaneously used to clamp the metal sheets together and to pass current through the sheets. The advantages of the method include efficient energy use, limited workpiece deformation, high production rates, easy automation, and no required filler materials. Weld strength is significantly lower than with other welding methods, making the process suitable for only certain applications. It is used extensively in the automotive industry—ordinary cars can have several thousand spot welds made by industrial robots. A specialized process, called shot welding, can be used to spot weld stainless steel.
Like spot welding, seam welding relies on two electrodes to apply pressure and current to join metal sheets. However, instead of pointed electrodes, wheel-shaped electrodes roll along and often feed the workpiece, making it possible to make long continuous welds. In the past, this process was used in the manufacture of beverage cans, but now its uses are more limited. Other resistance welding methods include flash welding, projection welding, and upset welding.
Energy beam welding methods, namely laser beam welding and electron beam welding, are relatively new processes that have become quite popular in high production applications. The two processes are quite similar, differing most notably in their source of power. Laser beam welding employs a highly focused laser beam, while electron beam welding is done in a vacuum and uses an electron beam. Both have a very high energy density, making deep weld penetration possible and minimizing the size of the weld area. Both processes are extremely fast, and are easily automated, making them highly productive. The primary disadvantages are their very high equipment costs (though these are decreasing) and a susceptibility to thermal cracking. Developments in this area include laser-hybrid welding, which uses principles from both laser beam welding and arc welding for even better weld properties.
Like the first welding process, forge welding, some modern welding methods do not involve the melting of the materials being joined. One of the most popular, ultrasonic welding, is used to connect thin sheets or wires made of metal or thermoplastic by vibrating them at high frequency and under high pressure. The equipment and methods involved are similar to that of resistance welding, but instead of electric current, vibration provides energy input. Welding metals with this process does not involve melting the materials; instead, the weld is formed by introducing mechanical vibrations horizontally under pressure. When welding plastics, the materials should have similar melting temperatures, and the vibrations are introduced vertically. Ultrasonic welding is commonly used for making electrical connections out of aluminum or copper, and it is also a very common polymer welding process.
Another common process, explosion welding, involves the joining of materials by pushing them together under extremely high pressure. The energy from the impact plasticizes the materials, forming a weld, even though only a limited amount of heat is generated. The process is commonly used for welding dissimilar materials, such as the welding of aluminum with steel in ship hulls or compound plates. Other solid-state welding processes include co-extrusion welding, cold welding, diffusion welding, friction welding (including friction stir welding), high frequency welding, hot pressure welding, induction welding, and roll welding.
Welds can be geometrically prepared in many different ways. The five basic types of weld joints are the butt joint, lap joint, corner joint, edge joint, and T-joint. Other variations exist as well—for example, double-V preparation joints are characterized by the two pieces of material each tapering to a single center point at one-half their height. Single-U and double-U preparation joints are also fairly common—instead of having straight edges like the single-V and double-V preparation joints, they are curved, forming the shape of a U. Lap joints are also commonly more than two pieces thick—depending on the process used and the thickness of the material, many pieces can be welded together in a lap joint geometry.
Often, particular joint designs are used exclusively or almost exclusively by certain welding processes. For example, resistance spot welding, laser beam welding, and electron beam welding are most frequently performed on lap joints. However, some welding methods, like shielded metal arc welding, are extremely versatile and can weld virtually any type of joint. Additionally, some processes can be used to make multipass welds, in which one weld is allowed to cool, and then another weld is performed on top of it. This allows for the welding of thick sections arranged in a single-V preparation joint, for example.
After welding, a number of distinct regions can be identified in the weld area. The weld itself is called the fusion zone—more specifically, it is where the filler metal was laid during the welding process. The properties of the fusion zone depend primarily on the filler metal used, and its compatibility with the base materials. It is surrounded by the heat-affected zone, the area that had its microstructure and properties altered by the weld. These properties depend on the base material's behavior when subjected to heat. The metal in this area is often weaker than both the base material and the fusion zone, and is also where residual stresses are found.
Distortion and cracking
Welding methods that involve the melting of metal at the site of the joint necessarily are prone to shrinkage as the heated metal cools. Shrinkage, in turn, can introduce residual stresses and both longitudinal and rotational distortion. Distortion can pose a major problem, since the final product is not the desired shape. To alleviate rotational distortion, the workpieces can be offset, so that the welding results in a correctly shaped piece. Other methods of limiting distortion, such as clamping the workpieces in place, cause the buildup of residual stress in the heat-affected zone of the base material. These stresses can reduce the strength of the base material, and can lead to catastrophic failure through cold cracking, as in the case of several of the Liberty ships. Cold cracking is limited to steels, and is associated with the formation of martensite as the weld cools. The cracking occurs in the heat-affected zone of the base material. To reduce the amount of distortion and residual stresses, the amount of heat input should be limited, and the welding sequence used should not be from one end directly to the other, but rather in segments. The other type of cracking, hot cracking or solidification cracking, can occur with all metals, and happens in the fusion zone of a weld. To diminish the probability of this type of cracking, excess material restraint should be avoided, and a proper filler material should be utilized.
The quality of a weld is also dependent on the combination of materials used for the base material and the filler material. Not all metals are suitable for welding, and not all filler metals work well with acceptable base materials.
The weldability of steels is inversely proportional to a property known as the hardenability of the steel, which measures the probability of forming martensite during welding or heat treatment. The hardenability of steel depends on its chemical composition, with greater quantities of carbon and other alloying elements resulting in a higher hardenability and thus a lower weldability. In order to be able to judge alloys made up of many distinct materials, a measure known as the equivalent carbon content is used to compare the relative weldabilities of different alloys by comparing their properties to a plain carbon steel. The effect on weldability of elements like chromium and vanadium, while not as great as carbon, is more significant than that of copper and nickel, for example. As the equivalent carbon content rises, the weldability of the alloy decreases. The disadvantage to using plain carbon and low-alloy steels is their lower strength—there is a trade-off between material strength and weldability. High strength, low-alloy steels were developed especially for welding applications during the 1970s, and these generally easy to weld materials have good strength, making them ideal for many welding applications.
Stainless steels, because of their high chromium content, tend to behave differently with respect to weldability than other steels. Austenitic grades of stainless steels tend to be the most weldable, but they are especially susceptible to distortion due to their high coefficient of thermal expansion. Some alloys of this type are prone to cracking and reduced corrosion resistance as well. Hot cracking is possible if the amount of ferrite in the weld is not controlled—to alleviate the problem, an electrode is used that deposits a weld metal containing a small amount of ferrite. Other types of stainless steels, such as ferritic and martensitic stainless steels, are not as easily welded, and must often be preheated and welded with special electrodes.
The weldability of aluminum alloys varies significantly, depending on the chemical composition of the alloy used. Aluminum alloys are susceptible to hot cracking, and to combat the problem, welders increase the welding speed to lower the heat input. Preheating reduces the temperature gradient across the weld zone and thus helps reduce hot cracking, but it can reduce the mechanical properties of the base material and should not be used when the base material is restrained. The design of the joint can be changed as well, and a more compatible filler alloy can be selected to decrease the likelihood of hot cracking. Aluminum alloys should also be cleaned prior to welding, with the goal of removing all oxides, oils, and loose particles from the surface to be welded. This is especially important because of an aluminum weld's susceptibility to porosity due to hydrogen and dross due to oxygen.